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December 2009

A Few More Christmas Travel Pictures

This is the old family home of my sister’s husband. With the passing of his parents a year or two ago it became his, or I should say theirs. No one is living there now, and they were generous enough to let us stay there while we were visiting for the holidays. It was like three days in a luxury hotel.

I have a thing about cedars, always have, and the driveway is lined with a very fine set of them, with several more in the yard. This is the view from a second story window on the morning of the day after Christmas (the preceding one was taken as we were leaving; it was dark and raining when we arrived):

This is a working farm, and behind the house are a number of outbuildings, and this thing which I couldn’t quite figure out. At first you might think it’s a well, and maybe it was, but there’s what seems to be a cast-iron basin in its mouth now. I meant to ask my brother-in-law about it. Anyway, I thought this was a nice image:

At the Old School

Our Christmas travels took us a couple of times up and down a road that I travelled every day until I was 15 or 16. It’s the road between the two tiny towns or villages of Belle Mina and Mooresville. They’re only a couple of miles apart, and roughly halfway between them was the school I attended through the 9th grade. It was called, imaginatively, Mooresville-Belle Mina. When I was in school there it was a wooden frame building with one room for each of the nine grades. At some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s a new brick building was erected, directly in front of the old one, between it and the road, and the old one was abandoned. Eventually the old one was torn down, and then the new one was abandoned, so there’s nothing there now but an empty spot and some ugly ruins.

But I noticed on this trip a new bit of road just south of the old school site, running a bit to the east, and some sort of new construction at the end of it. So I had to go take a look, and this is what I found (you may need to look at the larger version to read the sign):

I think this lends credence to the idea that certain places attract certain kinds of people and activities.

Christmas Associations

Winter as I remember it from growing up in north Alabama was brown pastures alternating with vast stretches of bare reddish-brown soil lying open to gray skies, and woods on the horizon. The picture below is not the view from the house I grew up in, but it’s very similar (it’s near a house belonging to my brother-in-law, where we stayed when we were there a few days ago). This is what I think of when I think of a December landscape—snow was rare.

And in contrast there was Christmas.

People who live in the northern hemisphere above a certain latitude have a great advantage in appreciating Christmas. Coming so near to the winter solstice, and being a thing of light and color, it brings home the significance of the coming of the Word of Light in an immediately sensual way not available to those living where there is no real winter, or where December brings the longest, not the shortest, day of the year. Where I live now is about as far south as you can go and still get much of that symbolism. There is a winter here, but it’s mild, and there’s still a lot of green. The area where I grew up is 350 miles (about 560km) north of here, and has something more akin to a real winter, though of course it’s pretty mild compared to the real north.

Christmas Lights at Spring Hill College

I may post nothing but pictures this week. I have a number of interesting ones, and I’d like to take a break from writing, maybe in hopes of getting some new project started after the turn of the year.

I really needed a tripod for this—it’s blurry, but still pretty, I thought.

Merry Christmas

Every year I recommend what is probably my favorite Christmas album, A Tapestry of Carols by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. This year, thanks to some YouTube subscriber who also likes the album, I can offer you a sample track from it.

I’ll be offline till late Saturday or early Sunday. I wish everyone a merry Christmas, and pray that everyone will follow the light that leads home.

A Christmas Gator

I was not very pleased to see this when I walked the dogs this morning. The picture is not very good (my camera didn’t seem to be able to focus on anything in particular), so it may not be obvious that the horizontal object in the water is an alligator. He’s maybe thirty or forty yards (roughly the same number of meters) away. I estimate he was 5-7 feet (1.5-2 meters) long. Big enough to think my little dog looks like a good meal. I’ve never seen one this big this far south in the bay, and he is not welcome. If he’s looking for warmer water, he’s headed in the wrong direction (south, toward the Gulf of Mexico). (I see I’ve picked up my wife’s habit of referring to any wild creature, especially a disgusting or dangerous one, as “he,” but of course I have no idea what sex it actually is.)

And as luck would have it some of my cousins chose this moment to have a morning swim. I didn’t try to warn them. That side of the family doesn’t usually want to have much to do with me, and frankly they’re not real bright anyway, though surely they have enough sense to stay well away from an alligator.

A Christmas Gardenia

This picture would not be at all strange except for the fact that it was taken last week. Even in south Alabama gardenias are supposed to be summer flowers, but I walked up the hill one night and saw this one, and one more on the same bush. The next morning I took my camera with me. It had been raining all night and was still sprinkling a bit.

It’s not precisely a rose e’er blooming, but it’ll do. It smelled wonderful. This morning I noticed it had gone the way of all earthly flowers and turned brown.

Wide, Wide in the Rose’s Side

We went to the cathedral for Mass today, which we hadn’t done for some time. For a while we were going there every Sunday, though it’s a 20-mile (32km) drive. When gasoline was so expensive a year or two ago we stopped, and got into the habit of going to the 5:30pm Mass at our local parish. Not being a morning person, I rather like going to Mass on Sunday evening; it’s nice not to have to get up and be in a hurry to get somewhere, and most of the day can be quite leisurely, with Mass as the late afternoon-early evening main event.

But we went to the cathedral today, partly because we’re going to be out of town on Christmas Day and won’t be able to go then. One of the main attractions there is the choir, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, and they sang a really striking piece today: it’s by Joel Martinson and is a setting of this text:

Wide, wide in the rose’s side
Sleeps a child without sin
And any man who loves in this world
Stands there on guard over him.

The music was beautiful, but the text really knocked me out. “Wide, wide” is obscure, but in the rest of those lines you have in a few words something important about the essence of manhood. I could say more but I’m afraid it would be clumsy; just read the verse again, and think about it.

The text was not attributed, and I had to know where it came from. I supposed it must be medieval, though rendered in modern English; that might, I thought, account for the strangeness of the first line. And “in the rose’s side” is very beautiful, and the sort of almost shocking image that one finds in old Christian poetry.

So as soon as I got home I got on the computer and searched for it, and could not have been more surprised when I found the name of the author: Kenneth Patchen, a 20th century American who wrote in a sort of beat/surrealist manner. I had a brief enthusiasm for his work when I was in my early ’t20s but haven’t read him since.

There is no mention in the Wikipedia bio of Patchen being a Christian, and I wouldn’t have guessed it from what I remember of his work. But it sure seems like he was when he wrote those lines.

You can read more about the piece here, and hear a 30-second sample of it here (it’s track #22).

An Atheist Christmas: Sad and Weird

Via NRO, news of an atheist Christmas “celebration” in the UK, sponsored by the Rationalist Association. “Celebration” is in quotes because there seems to be more spite than joy involved, and it is certainly no celebration of Christmas, but rather a sort of anti-Christmas—as best I can tell a sort of long jeer at Christmas proper and Christianity in general, mixed with cheers for various leftish political causes (apparently there was a bit of controversy when one of the speakers showed signs of being a “climate-change denier,” which is a richly revealing epithet).

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that there’s anything amiss with people who are not Christians enjoying the holiday. In countries shaped by the Christian tradition, Christmas is a cultural as well as a religious holiday, often more the former than the latter. And there are millions of people of other faiths or no faith at all who enjoy it on a purely human level. And who would ever wish to deny them that? I’m happy for them to see that much of the light of Christ; may they see more of it every December. Irving Berlin, the composer of “White Christmas,” was said to have loved Christmas as much as the song suggests, and he was Jewish. And I think that’s wonderful.

But to make the holiday an occasion for a very reactionary round of Christianity-bashing, to go to the trouble and expense obviously involved in this show for the sake of denouncing the religion you don’t believe, doesn’t seem very rational.

The spirit of the thing is summed up in this bit of advertising: “Take the Christ out of this Christmas with the perfect godless gift...” The site is full of things like that, half appalling and half amusing, e.g. a “festive song,” which seems, on the basis of a thirty-second sample, to be a sort of ‘70s soft-rock song with rather joyless lyrics like “Some understand the science of the season/Don’t need no gospel...” (Do they think Christians don’t know what the winter solstice is?) I can’t say any of it is terribly offensive, though it seems to want to be. It’s mostly just weird. And sad.

A Somewhat Dispirited Advent Post

It’s ten days until Christmas, and I believe I’ve thought less about Advent and Christmas this year than in any year of my life past the age of three or so. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here apart from a few notes about the number of people who view my Advent pictures, and other than dealing with various practical concerns such as scheduling days off at work and a very small amount of Christmas shopping, I haven’t given it much real-world attention either.

I think there are several reasons for this, apart from my personal sloth, which is probably the biggest. One factor is the general harried busy-ness of life. There’s hardly any moment when something, some task or source of entertainment or communication (such as this blog) isn’t demanding attention. By far most of my time is spent either at work or getting ready to go to work or going to work or coming home from work.

And the cultural-commercial Christmas season, which begins before Advent and ends with a crash on December 26, really gets in the way. It produces a lot of distraction and activity just when you need the opposite if you’re really going to celebrate Christmas itself, to say nothing of observing Advent properly. As the days just before Christmas became more and more busy, more and more people and institutions have pushed their “Christmas” observances back toward the first week or two of December.

Also, I find that now that my children are grown it’s easier not to pay attention to the season. When they were young, there was a reason to create some visible sign of Advent, and to have specific activities. And of course Christmas was a very big deal. Now it’s easy just to skate along, maybe thinking an occasional Advent-ish thought but not actually doing anything different.

Well, there’s still time, still time to think about what is happening rather than just drifting along inattentively. To that end, here is an excerpt from the Pope’s message for the first Sunday of Advent which particularly struck me:

However, there are very different ways of waiting. If time is not filled by a present gifted with meaning, the waiting runs the risk of becoming unbearable; if something is expected, but at this moment there is nothing, namely, if the present is empty, every instant that passes seems exaggeratedly long, and the waiting is transformed into a weight that is too heavy because the future is totally uncertain. When, instead, time is gifted with meaning and we perceive in every instant something specific and valuable, then the joy of waiting makes the present more precious.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us live the present intensely...

The whole thing can be found here.

FRONTLINE: From Jesus to Christ

I’m just in a bad mood tonight. Ordinarily crap like this doesn’t bother me much anymore. But at the moment it’s making me want to kick something. “Jesus in the Gospel of John is difficult to reconstruct as an historical person, because his character in the gospel is in full voice giving very developed theological soliloquies about himself”—just to pick a sentence more or less at random. “In other words, the commitment to the belief that Jesus had been raised is the index of the apocalyptic commitment on the part of his followers.” Blah effing blah.

I don’t recognize most of the names involved in this project, but I figure anything that treats John Dominic Crossan and Elaine Pagels as authorities on Christianity doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. And anyway the title pretty much gives the game away. (Though Jaroslav Pelikan is fine.)

I only know this exists because I looked at the PBS schedule in today’s paper, thinking there might be something on that I would want to watch. Then I had to go look on the web and see what it was about. Should have just hit my thumb with a hammer and been done with it.

What does that first quote even mean, anyway?

I mean really: “ and controversial historical evidence which challenges familiar assumptions about the life of Jesus...” This stuff is not new, and it’s not in the least controversial in the academy or in most of the PBS audience. The people you want to bother aren’t likely to watch, and the rest are just going to believe what you tell them. Like, you know, fundamentalists or something.

Just once I would like to see these conventional but nevertheless self-congratulatory minds challenge their own favored assumptions.

I think I should go walk the dog.

I Finally Get George Macdonald

In the late ‘70s, when I had just discovered C.S. Lewis, I learned from him of George Macdonald’s work. Lewis had edited George Macdonald: An Anthology, which I bought, and found interesting, but it was not an anthology in the usual sense. It contained no complete works or even substantial excerpts, but rather short quotations ranging from one sentence to a paragraph. I liked what I read, but got no sense of the books from which the excerpts were taken.

A bit later I read two of Macdonald’s novels, Lilith and Phantastes, and was disappointed in them. I didn’t dislike them, but they made no very strong impression on me, and my exploration of Macdonald’s work stopped there, thought I always thought I would give him another try someday.

Well, Janet Cupo has been recommending Macdonald’s “The Golden Key” to me, and I finally read it this weekend. I loved it, and immediately read the next story in the same volume “The History of Photogen and Nycteris,” the story of a boy who knows only day and a girl who knows only night, which I liked even better.

And now I understand. These stories are pure gold. They’re fairy tales of a sort, but fairy tales of an extraordinary richness and clarity and what Lewis called, if I remember correctly, a morning freshness. They are deeply good, and very unusual in literature in that they are able to make good seem intensely desirable. They do not make an argument for good over evil, but simply show them to you clearly. This is a much rarer thing in literature than it might seem; in this respect Macdonald resembles Tolkien. Also, like Tolkien’s work, these stories communicate a piercing and almost unbearable hope that most people hardly dare to entertain, but which Christians ought to believe is not just a hope but a promise. I say “ought to” because I think many of us find it difficult to hold on to. I know I do. And I know I’ll read these two stories many more times. When you get to the end of them you feel as if you’ve glimpsed, from a great distance, but unmistakably, heaven: the world and the life for which our hearts were made, but which most of the time seems impossible to attain—because it is impossible to attain by our own power alone. Macdonald seems like a person who has actually seen it, if not been there, and tells us stories to keep up our faith and courage on the journey.

You can read The Golden Key online here at the web site of the George Macdonald Society. “Photogen and Nycteris” is here, but it’s longer and perhaps not as suitable for online reading. The book which contains the two stories I mentioned, and some others which I will soon read, is published by Eerdmans.

Ginkgo Leaves

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, autumn is pretty drab here in this sub-tropical climate. The ginkgo is one of the literal bright spots. There aren’t too many of them, but there’s one on the campus where I work. I missed getting a picture of it last year, and was determined to do it this year. Still, I almost missed it anyway, forgetting to bring my camera to work. The first picture was too early. The second two were almost too late. Most of the leaves had fallen, which is why there’s no picture of the whole tree.

By the way, I’m going to be out of town for the weekend, and may not be online again till Sunday night or so. So if any interesting conversations break out and you wonder why I’m not participating, that’s why.

Tiger Woods Update

I know people just read this blog hoping for a tidbit of celebrity news. Here’s something from an anonymous caller to the local paper:

“Tiger Woods drives well on the fairway, but he didn’t fare well in the driveway.”

You’re welcome.

Living Water

This is apropos to the last two posts, and the conversation we’ve been having about them. Whenever I think about what it might mean to wake up after death in a resurrected body, I think of this little 15-second video. It’s from the SyFy (formerly SciFi) tv channel, and is one of those little self-identification clips that television networks insert somewhere in commercial breaks. I think they’re referred to as “bumpers.” SyFy used to have a number of them that were very striking bits of video magic, but none as memorable to me as this one.

Of course this woman is apparently being restored only to natural life, not supernatural, but still, it’s a powerful glimpse of the possibilities. Supernatural will only be better.

The first time she saw this, my wife said, “I want some of that water.” Well, haven’t we been promised living water?

Followup to the previous post

Several people, in comments on Without Sin? suggested that I’m referring to the idea, articulated by C.S. Lewis as well as in the Catholic teaching on Purgatory, of the need one might feel to be cleansed and purified before entering heaven. And I kept saying, yes, that’s an important point, but it’s not what I’m thinking about. It’s more like a physical disability, or a disease. Thinking about it this morning, I came up with an analogy.

Imagine a guy who’s always longed to play in the NFL. But he’s 5'5" tall, weighs 140 pounds, is small-boned and light-muscled, and due to a congenital defect wears a brace on one leg. Suppose a kind-hearted coach says to him, “Sure, come on, we’ll let you play,” invites him to training camp, and puts him in a uniform. Well, he can go out on the field, but still can’t play. No matter how merciful the coaches and the other players are to him, he’s just physically incapable of playing NFL football. To do so, he would have to be physically transformed.

Something like that, on the spiritual level but also on the level of whatever physicality our resurrected bodies will have, must, it seems to me, be part of what it would mean to be without sin, unfallen. That’s what I have difficulty in imagining. To imagine myself, as I am now, in heaven, is to imagine being in the position of that 140-pound guy.

I have faith that God can effect that sort of transformation, and in fact that analogy helps me to imagine it. I can imagine that guy being bigger and stronger and not having a bad leg, but still being essentially himself.

Without Sin?

Today being the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, I went to Mass on my lunch break. And all through the litrugy I thought about what it might mean, what it might be like, to be without sin. And I realized that I have no idea. I don’t mean to be without guilt for specific sins; I can imagine that, sort of. What I can’t imagine is being anything but the damaged, anxious, uncomfortable thing that I am.

As I know I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve had my share of ordinary doubts about the faith, moments of wondering if the skeptics are right and it’s all too good to be true, and so forth—the usual sort of thing. But in recent years I’ve encountered a more subtle difficulty: the inability to imagine myself in the place or condition we mean by the word “heaven.” No matter how wonderful I imagine it to be, I don’t see how it could really be heaven for me—that is, how the person I am could be at ease there. I can imagine, at most, being on the outside looking in.

In case I freeze to death this weekend...

...I just want to say I’ve enjoyed knowing all of you, and ask you to say a prayer for my soul.

You see, the temperature is expected to drop below freezing tonight or tomorrow night or maybe both. And the weather forecasters here seem to regard that as a life-threatening event.

I’ve lived almost my entire life in the state of Alabama, so I don’t have much experience of seriously cold weather. However, I grew up in the extreme northern end of the state, and am now living at the extreme southern end. If you look at Alabama on a map, you’ll observe that its north-south dimension is around 350 miles (560km). That’s enough to make a little difference in climate. Where I grew up, temperatures below freezing were common in winter, and every few years we got a significant snow (by “significant” I mean enough to cover the ground at least a few inches deep and hang around for a few days). Now and then it would get really quite cold, down around or below 0F (-17C).

Here, any dip below 32F/0C is big news. I was made aware of this when I came down here for a job interview in January or February of 1990. I turned on the radio in the car and heard a very excited weatherman giving dire warnings about the bitter cold that was about to descend on the area: Cover your plants! Wrap your pipes! Bring your pets inside! Stock up on food! Don’t go outside unless you absolutely have to! You could die!

I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know it got that cold here. I didn’t even bring my heavy coat.” And I waited to hear just how cold it was going to get. Finally the very excited weatherman said “We may see temperatures as low as...twenty-five degrees!” (That’s about -4C.)

I laughed.

Actually there’s a slight chance of snow, but it just started raining, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. Anyway, I think my chances of survival are pretty good, really.

Beauty for Truth’s Sake, by Stratford Caldecott

Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education
Stratford Caldecott (Brazos Press, 2009; 156 pp)

The subtitle of this book led me to expect that it would be good but somewhat conventional. I expected that it would be about the attempt to recover the foundations of education as they were understood before modern specialization and vocationalism made education principally a preparation for some specific career, and perhaps even before 18th-century skepticism detached it from its metaphysical grounding in the true, the good, and the beautiful.

A good deal has been written on that subject over the past thirty years or so, and those who are familiar with what I’ll call the neo-orthodox movement in Catholicism of our time, and especially those involved in Catholic home education and/or some of the recently-founded Catholic colleges, will probably understand why I didn’t really expect the book to say much that is new.

However, as far as I know (which is not all that far, so I’m open to correction), most of that discussion has centered on theology, philosophy, and literature, with a nod toward the sciences as a witness to the wonders and mysteries of Creation. Those are all very important, obviously, but they’ve been worked over pretty well.

This book is doing something different. It does indeed recommend the recovery of an approach to education that has been mostly abandoned, but it is not about classical education so much as about classical ideas. And—this is what really sets it apart—it is concerned more with  mathematics and science than with literature.

…the chapters that follow are not just about education, although if taken seriously they would change the way we teach. They are also about the search for beauty in art, science, and the cosmos—in short, the search for the Logos.

(from the Introduction)

This passage serves as a summary of the author’s intention, which, as I see it, is twofold, comprising the simultaneous application and explication of one core idea. In its first aspect it seeks to explore, on the basis of modern scientific knowledge, the idea that the truths of geometry and mathematics have spiritual significance. In conjunction with the discoveries of modern science about the way mathematical truth is embodied in nature, this idea opens the mind to a sense of profound and intimate connection between science and theology. It is not so much an attempted response to that tiresome formula, “the conflict between science and religion,” as a deep recognition that there is no conflict. Our conflict is not with science, but with men using science as a weapon in an ethical and theological war.

Of course most Catholics, if they’ve given the matter much thought, already affirm this, as does the Magisterium. Yet I think we still tend to put math and science into a box, set off to one side from the central activities and concerns of faith, and regarded still with just a bit of suspicion and apprehension. What I think Caldecott proposes here, though, is that math and science are part of the same process which gives us art and philosophy, activities which are informed by the faith and able in turn to deepen and enrich our understanding of the faith—even, I think it’s fair to say, in some sense enriching the faith itself.

The heart of the book is an exploration of specific aspects of mathematics, geometry, and their presence in the order of nature. There are many intriguing things in it, but I’m not going to attempt to reproduce or summarize them here because they don’t lend themselves to such treatment. And besides, many of them require pictures. But here’s a passage that serves as a sort of prelude to that exploration:

Our present education tends to eliminate the contemplative or qualitative dimension of mathematics altogether, reducing everything to sheer quantity. Mathematics is regarded as a form of logical notation, a mental tool with no relation to truth except the fact that it assists us in manipulating the world. This elimination of the symbolic dimension of mathematics is largely responsible for the divorce of science from religion, and art from science. But rather than continue to argue that case in the abstract, I want to immerse us in an alternative vision of mathematics. Let us learn for ourselves the beauty to be found in this world of patterns and relationships.

The broader aspect of the book is its building of intellectual support for the central idea. It’s an effort to recover the attitudes and some of the assumptions of ancient and medieval thinkers who saw not only the world itself but its deep structure as part of God’s revelation of himself, while letting go of their factual errors and embracing in this Pythagorean view the facts as science reveals them to us. The knowledge that these facts are provisional and always subject to revision and refinement need not worry us, for the same is true of all our knowledge, including and especially our knowledge of God.

The passage I quoted above continues:

This search is partly a matter of retrieval, but again, not exclusively so. We must have a proper sensitivity to the positive insights and fruits of the Enlightenment, lest we reject the good along with the bad.

This wish to recognize and retain whatever real progress has been made in post-Enlightenment thought and practice—in what we call “modernity”—is one that I share, and have given some thought to in connection with politics. I find that it sometimes distances me from otherwise like-minded Catholics in that neo-orthodox crowd I mentioned earlier. I don’t think the best way forward is to attempt to repeal the Enlightenment, or to act as if it never happened. It seems to me a poor line of argument to deny that there have been genuine advances of many sorts since the end of the Middle Ages. Whether they would have happened anyway, or with fewer destructive features, if European civilization had remained Catholic is impossible to know. What we need, I think, is stated nicely in a phrase Caldecott quotes from Charles Tayor (I don’t recognize the name, but Caldecott describes him as a Catholic philosopher): “a creative re-application of the spirit of the tradition.” And the mathematics, science, and technology of the modern world are among the things to which that spirit needs to be applied.

This is an exciting book. I recommend it. I might add that it’s also very well-written, and contains a number of really memorable passages, too many to quote here.

(Here is the publisher’s page describing it.)

For Cat Lovers

First, a poem, surely the greatest ever written about a cat: “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry,” by Christopher Smart—and thanks to Clare for bringing it to my attention.

And a picture:

It’s also by far the best picture of me I’ve ever seen. I took it two or three months ago, and it was just a lucky shot. I like to listen to music in the dark or rather near dark, and I was doing that, with a candle burning, and having a couple of drinks and fooling around with the low-light settings on my camera (phase one of my plan to get a good picture of the moon). There happens to be a mirror directly across the room from the chair I was sitting in—this was a bedroom before all the children moved out and it became my office or study or whatever—and I had the camera pointing that way, and a candle burning, and Meme was wandering around on my desk as she often does. It wasn’t till I looked at the pictures on the computer a few days later that I discovered I had captured her and her shadow so nicely.

I think the bigger version (click on the one above) is a bit clearer. This is a heavily cropped version of the original—what you see here is what was reflected in the mirror, and the mirror itself occupies only a third or so of the original image.